Remarks by USAID Deputy Administrator Donald K. Steinberg at American University School of International Service

Monday, February 6, 2012
Beyond Victimhood: The Crucial Role of Marginalized Groups in Building Peace


It's a great honor to speak here today on the topic of ensuring inclusive approaches toward peace processes and post-conflict peacebuilding. I want to thank American University's School of International Service and Julie Mertus in particular for their leadership in putting this program together, along with BlueLaw LLP, the Stimson Center, and Women Enabled. I also wanted to salute the work of our own dedicated professionals at USAID, including our Disability and Inclusive Development Coordinator Charlotte McLain-Nhlapo and Senior Governance Advisor Chloe Schweinke.

The engagement of marginalized populations in peace process, post-conflict operations and long-term development is an issue that's front and center in USAID's mission and vision. In the development arena, we've learned that sustainable economic and political development and stability is not just a function of high rates of per capita income.

It is a question of addressing socio-economic inequalities, creating meaningful employment, and promoting equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity. It is a question of drawing on and developing the wisdom, insights, skills and expertise of all portions of civil society, the business community, youth, women, the armed forces, LGBT communities, the disabled, and so on.

It's important to remember that Egypt under Hosni Mubarak experienced 6 and 8 and 10 percent growth rates, but didn't address youth unemployment, gender inequality, and inclusive development. And we've seen the painful results.

What's true in the development field is even more evident when it comes to making and consolidating peace. I've been engaged in a dozen such processes throughout my career, and the clearest conclusion I've reached is that the systematic exclusion of marginalized groups is the single greatest barrier to lasting peace.

I'm frequently asked to speak at orientation programs for UN officials going out to head up peacekeeping operations as Special Representatives, Force Commanders, and Police Commissioners. When I make the case for inclusive peace processes, I focus on three motivations.

First, I argue that including women, youth, IDPs, disabled persons, the LGBT community and other disempowered groups in peace is a matter of justice and human rights. I talk about a rights based approach - these groups should be there because they make up large percentages of the population, because international agreements signed by all governments guarantee their rights, and so on.

Second, I always highlight the fairness arguments: these marginalized groups have suffered most greatly during the conflict period and the peace process must address their past suffering but also ensure that the reconstruction process doesn't reinforce the patterns of exclusion that caused their suffering.

When I make these arguments, I often see eyes starting to glaze over. So I go quickly to the third argument. Half of all peace agreements fail within a decade of signature, often at great expense, human suffering and damage to the careers of officials involved in the process. And I remind them that there is clear anecdotal and growing statistics based evidence - from Guatemala to Liberia, from East Timor to Nepal -- to show that peace processes and peace building are more likely to work, to enjoy support from civil society, and to address the "make or break" issues if there's full participation of marginalized groups.

And I get very specific with them. I say, "If your commanders want to know where the next rebel attack is going to occur, don't just talk to regional governors or mayors: hear from the women in the marketplace who are the eyes and ears of their communities and whose families' safety depends on having the latest information.

If you want to know whether your justice and security sector reform efforts are working, don't just talk to the judges or the generals: hear from to the LGBT community and disabled persons who are trying to access that justice system or seek protection from that army.

If you want to know whether your return and reintegration programs are effective, don't just talk to the camp managers or international organizers: hear from the displaced people whose life and livelihoods depend upon those programs.

And don't just talk to them: involve them in all programs as planners, implementers and beneficiaries."

Insofar as gender equality and women's empowerment is concerned, I learned this lesson the hard way almost two decades ago.

In 1994, while serving as President Clinton's advisor for Africa, I supported the negotiations to end two decades of civil war in Angola that had killed a half million people and left four million displaced. When the Lusaka Protocol was signed, I remember giving a speech where I boasted that not a single provision in the agreement discriminated against women. "The agreement is gender-neutral," I proclaimed a little too proudly.

President Clinton then named me as US ambassador to Angola and a member of the Joint Commission implementing the peace accords. It took me only a few weeks after my arrival in Luanda to realize that a peace agreement that is "gender-neutral" is, by definition, discriminatory against women.

Consider the evidence. First, the agreement did not require the participation of women in the Joint Commission itself. As a result, at each meeting of this body, forty men and no women sat around the table.

This imbalance silenced women's voices on the hard issues of war and peace, and meant that issues as internal displacement, sexual violence, abuses by government and rebel security forces, and the rebuilding of maternal health care and girls' education were generally ignored.

Second, the peace accord was based on 13 separate amnesties that forgave the parties for atrocities committed during the conflict. One amnesty even excused actions that might take place six months in the future. Given the prominence of sexual abuse during the conflict, including rape as a weapon of war, amnesties meant that men with guns forgave other men with guns for crimes committed against women. The amnesties also introduced a cynicism at the heart of our efforts to rebuild the justice and security sectors.

Similarly, as we launched demobilization programs for ex-combatants, we soon realized that the agreement essentially defined a combatant as anyone who turned in a gun. The thousands of women who had been kidnapped or coerced into the armed forces were largely excluded, since most of them were exploited as cooks, messengers, bearers, and even sex slaves.

Male ex-combatants received a little money and demobilization kits, but were shipped back to communities that had learned to live without them during decades of conflict. The frustration of these men exploded into an epidemic of alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce, rape, and domestic violence. In effect, the end of civil war unleashed a new and even more pernicious era of violence against women.

Even such well-intentioned efforts as clearing major roads of landmines to allow more than 4 million refugees and IDPs to return to their homes backfired against women. Road clearance generally preceded the demining of fields, wells, and forests. As newly resettled women went out to plant the fields, fetch water, and collect firewood, they faced a new rash of landmine accidents.

The process was largely silent on other issues, such as trafficking in persons, reproductive health care, HIV/AIDS, small arms in civilian hands, and psycho-social needs of rape victims.

We recognized these problems, and responded by bringing out gender advisers and human rights officers; launching programs in maternal health care, girls' education, micro-enterprise, and support for women's NGOs; and insisting that women be planners, implementers and beneficiaries for our humanitarian and reconstruction programs.

But it was too little, too late. The people viewed the peace process as serving the interests of the warring parties rather than civil society. And when the process faltered in 1998, there was little civic pressure on the leaders to prevent a return to conflict. The killing only ended with the death of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi four years later.

For this reason, I was so pleased in 2000 when the Security Council passed resolution 1325, which promises a systematic approach and concentrated energy to address issues of women in armed conflict and peace building. I was so moved that the pin number on my ATM card is actually 1-3-2-5.

USAID has been pleased to play a leading role in adoption of the U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, and along with State and Defense, we are now engaged with civil society actors in conflict countries to develop our comprehensive implementation plan.

I was pleased to announce at Afhad Women's University in Khartoum last year a Global Women's Leadership Fund to support the inclusion of women in peace processes, including Track I and II negotiations, and transitional political processes. These funds will support training, provides stipends, and can even be used for physical protection, since we all know that one of the most dangerous professional in the world is a woman peacebuilder.

We've brought on a full-time senior coordinator for gender equality and women's empowerment, the talented Carla Koppell. And we've shamelessly pouched Caren Grown from American University to draft our gender policy, which will be released shortly, and ensure that gender is fully integrated and mainstreamed throughout all our efforts.

We are using our powers of moral suasion - and often more than that - to persuade heads of UN missions and international organizations to ensure a critical mass of women are in peace talks, reconstruction conferences, and governance mechanisms. In our own planning, we are now requiring the equivalent of a "gender impact statement" for all such programs, ensuring that reconstruction efforts build social structures of particular importance to women, such as reproductive health clinics and safe schools for girls.

I wanted to briefly address our work with other marginalized groups. I won't repeat the comments that Charlotte and Chloe have made vis-à-vis disabled persons and the LGBT community. I did want to use this opportunity to announce, however, that we're bringing on next week a talented former USAID and military officer, Beth Salamanca, as our senior coordinator for LGBT issues to implement the President's forward-looking initiatives in this space.

I'd like to spend a few moments on two other marginalized communities: young people and displaced persons. Too frequently, the absence of youth advocates during peace negotiations means that issues related to protecting their rights and well-being during conflict and attending to their educational, health, rehabilitation and nutritional needs in post-conflict periods are completely ignored.

We do so at our peril. As with women, refusal to respect youth rights and to account for past abuses can put a cancer at the heart of peace processes.

Failure to show real improvements in the lives of children erodes the support of the general population and, in particular, powerful civil society groups for a peace process perceived as representing only the interests of the warring parties themselves.

And rampant youth unemployment, resulting in mass alienation of young men in particular, is the surest way to produce a ready reserve of recruits for fanatical leaders like Foday Sankoh, Jonas Savimbi, or Joseph Kony.

Indeed, the phenomenon of child soldiers - numbering some 380,000 globally -- is the most tragic impact when children and conflict collide. Go into any camp for demobilizing soldiers in a peace process and you'll find large numbers of children, many of whom were involved in combat, carried AK-47s almost as big as they are, and took human lives.

Talk to these young people and you find that they're more frightened by the prospects of demobilization and civilian life than they ever were on the battlefield. They know that they possess no skills - even basic skills of social inter-action - needed in civilian life. They know that their homes are gone or that their families don't really want them back, fearing their impact in particular on younger siblings

They will usually be given a little money, some seeds and tools, and maybe even some psycho-social counseling, but they lack the most important commodity: hope and faith in the future.

Finally, let me say a word about displaced persons. In 2005, I spent a year as a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace traveling to IDP camps around the world, from Sudan to Sri Lanka. IDPs are outcasts in their own countries, driven from their homes, and forced to live in makeshift camps, abandoned buildings, forests, and shanty towns. They are unprotected by international conventions on refugees and subject to the not-so-tender mercies of their own governments. IDP camps are sites of domestic violence, trafficking in persons, drug and alcohol abuse, tuberculosis, cholera, and crime. Some 25 million people today find themselves in such conditions in about 50 countries, including by most estimates more than a million each in Algeria, Colombia, Congo, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Turkey and Uganda.

Yet when parties come together to negotiate the end to conflict, IDPs are nearly always excluded from the peace talks, and the issues of greatest interest to them - resettlement to their places of origin, rebuilding of basic infrastructure and social services, clearance of landmines, and reform of the security sector - are given short shrift.

Governments and rebel forces which are often complicit in the factors leading to displacement don't want to confront them at the peace table. But again, their inclusion is needed for reasons beyond fairness and justice.

The effective return of IDPs to their homes is key to re-establishing normalcy, restoring human security, and extending state administration throughout the country.

By contrast, the premature or flawed return of displaced persons in the absence of security and sustainability can lead quickly to new displacement and conflict. This is especially true because issues related to their return can be explosive, including compensation for displacement, accountability, and restoration of land rights.

IDPs themselves are best positioned to know when it is wise and safe to return to their homes, and their voices must be part of the peace process.

I want to conclude by going back to where I began: we are not undertaking these steps simply as a question of fairness, human rights, and equity. Inclusivity is an essential investment in the success of peace operations, reconciliation and reconstruction. And yet even today, you sometimes hear people in the corridors of power refer to these issues as the "soft side" of peace-building.

Let me assure you: there is nothing "soft" about preventing armed thugs from abusing women, children and other marginalized groups in IDP camps. There's soft about holding warlords and other human rights violators accountable for their actions against women. There's nothing soft about demobilized soldiers to refrain from domestic violence, or insisting that women, IDPs and others have a seat at the table in peace negotiations and post-conflict governments.

These are among the hardest responsibilities in our foreign policy agenda, and I'm proud to be here today among so many dedicated and courageous individuals who are addressing them. Thank you.

American University School of International Service, Washington, DC

Last updated: May 02, 2016

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